Many of the world’s problems exist because of the systems of rules that we live under. These rules have been defined over centuries to make it so that a tiny minority of people can become ridiculously wealthy while we all head towards the sixth great extinction. Some call this the anthropocene, blaming our troubles on humans generally. It would be more accurate to call it the capitalismocene instead. To understand how we got here on the brink of civilizational collapse, all in the service of a system that enriches that tiny minority, we need to learn how those rules got made.
As a social species, we have always had systems of rules to coordinate our actions to make sure our needs get met. When we were hunting and gathering our foods for the majority of human existence, we were relatively equal. As we “civilized” we became much more unequal.
All of our systems of rules are the result of negotiations between people in society. The Build Back Better bill has been a great illustration of this fact, because it addresses so many different topics it shows all the forces in society as it is fought over. It may not be nearly what we need, but the final content of this bill is a direct reflection of the amount of power that each legislator or block of legislators have, and by extension the power of their funders. At the time that rules are being made, the balances of power define the shape of that rule.
The power balance in society is a complex thing, but at its basis, it depends on control of other people’s needs to live, breath, drink, eat, love, hate, self-actualize and all other higher needs. The more control over the more basic the need, the more power one has over another person. If one person can end another person’s life, then they have immense power over them.
The more power a person or group has over another person or group, the better negotiating position they have in creating new rules. Every war ever fought is about setting up the negotiating position for when the war is over. Wars always end and the victor and the vanquished decide what the rules will be going forward. The more overwhelming the victory, the more the rules are tilted in the victor’s favor.
Look at any oppressive system and you can find a war that was fought to establish that system. Modern capitalism was established by the violent expulsion of serfs off of land (the enclosures in England) that they and their families had lived on for centuries. Slavery started with a war on the shores of the African continent where people were violently kidnapped and brought to the Spanish and later English colonies in the Americas. The reservations set up across the United States for our Indigenous brothers and sisters were established at the end of bloody wars of extermination. Colonialism fought wars all over the globe to establish new rules so that in the end the colonized were forever put in service of the colonizers.
Some of the ideas that are common knowledge were the result of wars fought thousands of years ago. The ideas of debt are thousands of years old and because of that long history laid down in religious texts, everyone believes that debts should be paid, no matter the terms under which they were made. Student debt is an example of people entering into debt because there are no better options after 50 years of deindustrialization. Written law is another such idea. Following the law no matter how oppressive is also deeply ingrained in all of us.
The only way these systems have been made more tolerable for the majority of people has been when ordinary people have fought back through wars, revolutions, strikes and protests. At the end of any of those, there was a point where new rules were negotiated at the height of our collective powers. No amount of moralizing or begging will ever deliver those changes. People who say that the Western powers should pay climate reparations as part of COP26 will get nowhere as those in power have no morals to appeal to. They will have to be forced to pay. Global debt from the south to the north will also not be forgiven through moral appeals.
Honestly, the fight for our future is actually quite simple. It is us (the overwhelming majority of people) and them (the tiny minority). Our power is the greatest when we are unified and our power is least when we are divided. They have always known that for as long as there have been rulers. Developing unity is an enormous task. We are divided by so many things, like race, gender, nationality, religion, language, skills, positions within hierarchies, jobs, regions and so on. Our only path is to learn how to unify ourselves into the biggest formations possible to wrest power from the elites to allow us to make rules that will allow us to survive as a species.